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Diplomacy in Action

Keynote Remarks at the State Department's Celebration of Native American Heritage Month


Remarks
Reta Jo Lewis
Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs 
George C. Marshall Conference Center
Washington, DC
November 16, 2011

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Good afternoon everyone. Thank you Jennie for that kind introduction.

I feel honored to have been asked by Director Robinson and the Office of Civil Rights to participate in the Department’s celebration of Native American Heritage Month.

As a Representative of the United States and on behalf of the U.S. Department of State, I would like to thank everyone for joining us in this celebration of Native American Heritage. I would also like to thank Director Robinson and the Office of Civil Rights for all of their hard work to advance diversity and ensure equal opportunity within the Department.

I appreciate the opportunity today to discuss what the U.S. Department of State has done and is doing to engage tribes and indigenous individuals on a variety of international issues.

There are not many Native Americans in the Department of State—less than one percent in the Civil and Foreign Services—but Native Americans have a significant impact on the work of my office and on foreign affairs.

Last year, I had the opportunity to work with Native American leaders and organizations as part of a consultation process leading to the United States changing its position on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Under the leadership of Secretary Clinton, the Department of State has broadened and changed the way we conduct business and opened our doors to a new era of engagements. As the Secretary has made clear, the time has come to take a bold and imaginative look, not just at the substance of our foreign policy, but at how we conduct our foreign policy.

We must now make the transition to 21st Century Statecraft, engaging with all the elements of our national power – and leveraging all forms of our strength. We must now engage leaders and utilize their extraordinary innovation, talent, resources, and knowledge. In the past, we only scratched the surface. That is why the Secretary created the Office of Global Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of State – to formally work directly with state, and local elected officials in the U.S. and abroad. This includes collaboration with governors, mayors, chief ministers, and provincial leaders around the globe.

As part of this transition to 21st Century Statecraft, my office was also tasked to work with tribal governments. Through this work, my office had the pleasure of helping to facilitate the consultations and NGO meetings during the U.S. review of its position on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Declaration).

In that capacity, my office served as a bridge between the United States government and Tribal leaders during the collaborative review of the Declaration.

The decision to review the U.S. position on the Declaration occurred in response to calls from many tribes, individual Native Americans, civil society, and others in the United States who believed that support for the Declaration would make an important contribution to U.S. policy regarding indigenous issues.

Secretary Clinton takes the engagement of indigenous peoples very seriously. The Secretary made engagement concerning the U.S. review of the Declaration a priority in our work at the Department of State.

It was very important to the Secretary that we work closely with our interagency colleagues to arrange meaningful consultations with tribal leaders and outreach to other Native American groups and individuals throughout the U.S. to properly inform the U.S. review of the declaration.

Therefore in organizing these consultations, my office worked very closely with our colleagues in the Department’s Office of the Legal Advisor, notably Kathy Milton, and in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, as well as our colleagues at over 14 different U.S. Government departments, agencies, and offices including White House Senior Policy Adviser for Native American Affairs Kimberly Teehee who was here at the Department last week for Native American Heritage Month to discuss social inclusion and mentorship of minorities.

During the review, we extensively with tribal leaders through three rounds of consultation, the first of which occurred on June 21, 2010, at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Mid-Year Conference in Rapid City, South Dakota. The two additional consultations were held on July 7 and October 14, 2010 here at the Department of State.

Additionally, federal agencies reached out to indigenous organizations, civil society, and other interested individuals through a series of additional outreach meetings.

We provided participants with a variety of ways to engage with U.S. officials. They were able to participate in those sessions by means of conference calls or in person in addition to submitting written comments.

One of the most striking things during the consultations for me was seeing firsthand the commitment and determination of Native Americans, including tribal leaders, throughout the country to participate and play a role in shaping the review process. In total, over 3,000 written comments were received and reviewed.

Through these comments and formal consultations, we received invaluable information and advice on how to work with tribes and develop a meaningful relationship with the indigenous community, which was very important to us.

Tribes, groups, and individuals who participated in the review of the U.S. position on the Declaration presented a wide range of views on the meaning and importance of the Declaration. While they could not all be directly reflected in the U.S. position statement on the Declaration, they were all considered in the process.

And I am proud to say that under the leadership of this Administration, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to building a new chapter in our relations with tribal governments.

On December 16, 2010 President Obama announced that the United States is lending its support to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In his remarks, President Obama recognized that “[w]hile we cannot erase the scourges or broken promises of our past, we will move ahead together in writing a new, brighter chapter in our joint history.”

As we move forward together, I want to emphasize the deep commitment of this Administration to addressing indigenous issues.

The UN Declaration conveys the aspirations of indigenous peoples around the world, individual states that seek to improve their relations with indigenous peoples, and the United States government. The U.S. looks to achieve the aspirations within the framework of the U.S. Constitution, laws, and international obligations, while also seeking, where appropriate, to improve our laws and policies.

U.S. support for the Declaration goes hand in hand with the U.S. commitment to address the consequences of a history in which, as President Obama recognized, “few have been more marginalized and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans.”

The United States is home to over two million Native Americans, 565 federally recognized Indian tribes, and other indigenous communities. U.S. support for the Declaration reflects the U.S. commitment to work with those tribes, individuals, and communities to address the many challenges they face. The United States aspires to improve relations with indigenous peoples by looking to the principles embodied in the Declaration in its dealings with federally recognized tribes, while also working, as appropriate, with all indigenous individuals and communities in the United States.

The United States is committed to serving as a model in the international community in promoting and protecting the collective rights of indigenous peoples as well as the human rights of all individuals.

That commitment is reflected in the many policies and programs that are being implemented by U.S. agencies in response to concerns raised by Native Americans, including poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation, health care gaps, violent crime, and discrimination.

The U.S. Government is focused on strengthening the government-to-government relationship with tribes and making sure agencies have the necessary input from tribal leaders before taking actions that have significant impact on the tribes.

In this vein, a number of agencies have created offices and experimented with new technologies to directly engage with tribes, and the Administration is continuing its multi-agency collaborations with tribal governments to develop comprehensive policy for Indian Country.

At the State Department, engagement and consultation with tribes on international policies affecting Indian Country have been and continue to be a priority.

Just a few weeks ago, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment Larry Gumbiner traveled to Portland, Oregon to engage the National Congress of American Indians in a discussion of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development that will take place June 20 – 22, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro.

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development represents the next milestone in a path that stretches back 40 years in the international community’s efforts to bring human societies and economies into better harmony with the environment and make development sustainable. The conference will mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit and so it is known as “Rio+20.”

The Department has also been engaging with tribes on the landmark Columbia River Treaty that is tremendously important for both the United States and Canada, as well as to the Tribes in the Pacific Northwest region.

The Department of State recognizes the importance of a healthy and robust Columbia River Basin ecosystem and the Tribes’ unique role in protecting that ecosystem.

The Tribes, along with federal and state-level interests in the basin are currently engaged in a comprehensive review of the Columbia River Treaty in an organization called the Sovereign Review Team.

The U.S. Entity, composed of the Bonneville Power Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is responsible for managing the water resources resulting from the Columbia River Treaty.

The Department of State expects to receive a recommendation from the U.S. Entity in September 2013 based on the Sovereign Review Team’s extensive review.

The Department is currently looking at ways to organize consultations with the tribes after receiving the September 2013 recommendation from the U.S. Entity.

These engagements represent only a few of the wide range of activities federal agencies are working on to continue to connect and cooperate with indigenous peoples throughout the U.S. on a variety of policy topics.

In addition, President Obama will host his Administration’s third White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Department of the Interior on December 2, 2011. This conference will continue to build upon the President’s commitment to strengthen the government-to-government relationship with federally recognized tribes.

The United States has made great strides in improving its relationship with Native Americans and indigenous peoples around the world. However, much remains to be done.

As President Obama has said, “What matters far more than words . . . are actions to match those words.” And the Department of State is committed to following the President’s statement through a continuing effort to improve the Department’s consultation, outreach, and engagement with tribal leaders.

I look forward to continued progress in our partnership together as we begin a new chapter in U.S.–tribal relations.



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